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Successful Talent Acquisition Begins With Fixing Your Interview Bias

August 19, 2021

By Sheri Welsh, originally featured in SBAM’s FOCUS Magazine

Are you tired of talking about talent acquisition challenges? Me too! Good people are hard to find; we all know it and we’re all desperately looking for solutions to help mitigate the lack of applicants for open positions. Consider this: When we are making hiring decisions from small, sometimes seemingly unqualified candidate pools, it’s important to ensure we vet each candidate with an open mind. None of us wants to miss out on a great hire due to something we may not even be aware of—interview bias. Correcting interview bias hidden within your hiring process is a tool you can use to help address your hiring challenges.

We immediately think that interview bias is about diversity, equity and inclusion, and while that is correct, it’s also so much more. In reality, interview bias occurs anytime an interviewer judges a candidate on ANY unspoken or unconscious criteria, rather than skills and competencies. And because bias is often an unconscious action, it’s difficult to recognize. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can all probably identify some situations where interview bias affected our judgement of a candidate.

We can probably agree that we’d like to change that for many reasons, but some may still wonder: How does correcting interview bias help us win the war for talent? Interview bias, when left unchecked, leads to poor hiring decisions. We either hire people we should NOT have hired OR don’t hire people we should have. Either way, poor hiring decisions will of course lead to excessive turnover—the bad hire comes back to haunt us and further derails our attempts to get ahead of the talent train. In addition, it will cost our teams time and money in wasted training, repeated interview processes and perhaps even damaged customer relationships. If left unchecked, turnover related issues can damage our brand, causing us to be seen as anything but an employer of choice.

There are many types of bias that can creep into our interview processes and you may be aware of the most common, such as stereotyping and relying on first impressions. However, some of the most dangerous forms are those less recognized and understood. Here’s a few of those interview bias minefields along with some suggestions on how to fix them:

“There’s something about them I really like!”: aka an affinity bias. You may find yourself drawn to candidates who are like you, be it a similar taste in clothing, same alma mater or mutual love of Elton John. And note that the opposite is also true: you may find yourself not connecting well to the candidate who appears to be the polar opposite of you—an equally
dangerous bias.

The fix: Limit the chit chat in the first interview and check your gut instincts at the door. Instead, start the conversation with your candidate with some welcoming comments and banter about the weather or the current state of affairs at your company, avoiding the temptation to get too personal with the candidate before you understand their true fit for the role. There will be plenty of time to get to know them personally in the second interview or after they are hired!

The police lineup effect: You compare one candidate to another, a weaker candidate versus a stronger candidate, instead of comparing every candidate to your standards for the position.

The fix: When completing your assessment of the candidate at the close of the interview, use a rubric or standardized form to evaluate candidates on a 1-4 rating of their skills and competencies relative to what is needed in the role. Don’t have a rubric or objective interview assessment process in place? Establish one today!

Lack of consistent interview questions: Failing to ask every candidate the same or similar questions in the interview leads to an incomplete assessment of a candidate’s true capabilities. You may catch yourself making assumptions that they know X because they graduated from U of M or that they have done Y because they have 20 years of experience in the field. And these assumptions may be completely wrong.

The fix: Standardize your interview questions for every position, and use them consistently, especially in the first interview process. As candidates respond, probe more deeply to fully understand if they truly have the skills and competencies you are looking for. Check and verify your underlying assumptions.

The Barbie Doll effect: You’re holding out for the perfect candidate, which of course rarely, if ever, exists in real life. You may even be working with job requirements established years ago, which today, don’t seem to matter anymore. Does this job really require a college degree to be performed well? Is a prior conviction really a show stopper for this position?

The fix: Get real. Review the skills and competencies you have established for the position, and with the help of your team, evaluate which items fall into the must-have, nice to have and highly desired categories. Eliminate those items that are irrelevant to performing the job well today. When you’re tempted to count a candidate out because of their lack of X, check it against your wish list and consider if that skill might be developed in short order, allowing the candidate to still be very effective in the role while learning.

Eliminating interview bias is critically important when faced with shallow candidate pools as we are right now. Every viable candidate matters and deserves a fair, unbiased consideration.

We can’t afford to miss out on a great hire because our interview bias got the best of us. A thorough, honest review of your interview process and approach will help you adjust any areas of bias revealed and allow you to consistently hire rock stars who will help your company thrive.

Sheri Welsh is the President & CEO of Welsh & Associates, a full-service executive search and talent acquisition firm in Kalamazoo. Sheri holds a BS in Business Administration from Central Michigan University and is a SHRM Senior Certified Professional (SHRM-SCP) Certified Personnel Consultant (CPC) and Certified Employee Retention Specialist (CERS). She serves on the board of directors for the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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